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Do Numbers Trump Intuition?
By Mike Carlton

Henry Ford

The story goes that when Henry Ford was seeking financing to build the Model T, his banker asked him, “Mr. Ford, have you researched your market to see if they want this contraption?”

Ford’s immediate reply was, “No! If I asked them what they want, I’d be asking you for money to raise faster horses.”

Faster Horses, Indeed

Today, technology is delivering an exploding array of data about consumers, and b-to-b buyers as well. That data contains all kinds of information. Demographics. Psychographics. Focus group results. Qualitative research. Quantitative research. Multivariate testing analyses. Web use patterns. Ethnographic tracking. Artificial intelligence determinations. Product perceptions. Beliefs. Behaviors. Media consumption patterns. CRM info. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Almost anything your heart could ever wish for.

And much of this data isn’t just about big groups anymore. Or even small clusters. It is about each and every consumer.

One Person at a Time

That’s over 300 million consumers in the US alone. Plus billions more in the rest of the world. The volume of available information is mind-boggling.

When you think about it this way, there are probably thousands of pages of data with marketing value about each and every one of us. All floating around out there. All available to savvy marketers.

Take out your BlackBerry and run a calculation on how many pieces of information that might be. Then figure the permutations and combinations.

Incredible! Simply incredible!

Marketers are swimming in data. No, more accurately, they are drowning in it.

The Role of Metrics

Parallel to the availability of all this information is the ever increasing desire for metrics to support marketing decision making. Fact-based decision making is very attractive. It promises to reduce risk. And increase focus and effectiveness.

Thought leaders like Forrester are promoting the concept of “Left-Brain Marketing.” Where three technology trends — media fragmentation, addressability, and interactivity — are converging on the world of marketing and advertising. It promises that in a new era of left-brain marketing, analytical strategies grounded in deep audience knowledge, will rise to predominance.

This thinking has led many businesses to apply more rigorous quantitative standards to marketing performance. It is increasingly easy to know what has worked and what hasn’t worked. And to connect the economic value of a result with the cost of its cause.

Applying quantitative standards and then measuring performance against them is just plain smart. Ignoring available performance facts would be downright irresponsible. But…

The ROI Trap

We hear it every day. ROI (Return On Investment) is bandied about at almost every marketing meeting. And with so much factual information available, ROI has become the mantra of many businesses. It is not unusual for every marketing decision to be subject to a formal ROI test.

This makes sense. But only in proper context.

Often it seems that people think of ROI as a new idea. But it isn’t. Since the beginning of time every free enterprise business has been founded and run under the concept of return on investment. The founders and operators of each free market commercial enterprise invest with the idea of making a greater return in the future.

So it is important to know not just, “What is the return?” But also, “When?”

Seeking ROI is not novel. That’s a given. What is novel is seeking it instantaneously. For in marketing a quick return may well be at the expense of a greater return later on. An issue not always considered.

Thus the timing of the expected return is in many ways more important than its size. A factor easily overlooked when applying short-term metrics.

The Curse of Excel

Now to cope with all these numbers, and metrics, and analytics, and ROI calculations business schools are churning out MBAs who can make Excel spreadsheets sing. They can create multi-page, multi-dimensional documents in glorious color. With big boxes. And little boxes. And all sorts of dramatic charts and graphs.

They are wondrous things. Works of art.

And they are circulated to colleagues by email, intranets, and extranets. Our inboxes overflow. And it seems that every meeting is filled with pages upon pages of data. We stare at small details on big screens. We know so much.

But to what end?

Auto Pilot

Could it be that the nirvana of completely quantifiable marketing is here? It certainly looks like the marketing pendulum is swinging that way. Plenty of big name gurus and highly successful marketers appear to be moving that direction.

Does this mean we can now put marketing decisions on auto pilot?

Or is this just a fact-filled illusion?

The Problem with Facts

Facts, by definition, are historic. No fact, nor any piece of data, can accurately predict the future. Facts are a view of the world through the rear view mirror. Yet we, and our businesses, will spend the rest of our lives in the future.

Think about that for a minute. All this data is about what was, not what will be. And our individual and business success depends on future outcomes.

“Whoa,” you say. “What about predictive modeling?”

You’re right. There are big advances there. But it’s still primitive. Just ask yourself how much faith you have in next week’s weather forecast. A forecast based on the best data, computers, systems and software that money can buy. Then apply that same level of reliability to most consumer behavior predictions.

Kind of scary, isn’t it?

The Problem with People

Like the constant, yet often subtle, changing winds and temperatures that make weather forecasting so difficult, people are constantly changing, too. In ways we never fully understand. Nor can accurately measure.

If you doubt this, ask yourself why survey-based election predictions are constantly changing and why accurately predicting political outcomes is so difficult. Those pesky people out there just keep changing their opinions and their behaviors. They just won’t sit still long enough for reliable predictive models to be constructed. Kind of like trying to build a house on ever-shifting sand.

How people behaved in the past and how they will behave in the future is not easily reconciled by quantitative means.

No matter how sophisticated the computer or system or data set.

The Human Mind

Each of us is equipped with a tool that is infinitely more capable than any computer or system or data set that has ever been built. Or probably ever will be built. It is our brain.

Yours. Mine. And billions of others around the world.

Each contains a magical capability. It is called intuition. The dictionary defines intuition as “the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning.”

Intuition is a bit of an enigma. While each of us uses it every day, we really don’t know much about how it works. Why intuitive ideas come. And why they don’t. And why they seem to pick their own time to intrude upon our consciousness.

Intuition is maverick in nature. It marches to its own drummer. It defies logic. And it absolutely resists measurement.

Perhaps that is why logical thinking and intuitive thinking appear to be at odds.

Intuition in Action

Columbus used intuition in finding America. Henry Ford used intuition in putting the world on wheels. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs used intuition in shaping the information age. And the list goes on and on and on.

The simple fact is that great advancements come from intuition. They do not come from incremental extensions of what already exists.

And great marketing and advertising ideas spring from intuition, too. It is the wellspring of our craft.

Hand in Hand

Don’t misunderstand.

Neither numbers nor intuition trumps the other. Facts and intuition need to work together. They must be balanced. Facts alone cannot do the job. Nor can intuition alone. The values each brings to the table must be integrated.

Before knowing where we are going, it is vital to know where we have been, and where we are now. Factual data can answer those questions.

Agencies and Factual Data

Yet like it or not, many marketers believe that agencies resist metrics. And are not comfortable working with the wealth of quantitative information available about the consumers in their clients’ target audiences. That agencies just don’t get what is happening in the growth of data-based decision making. And there appears to be a lot of evidence to support that belief.

Too many agency people wish the data wonks would just go away and let them create in peace.

Yet smart agencies are proactively embracing this new age of data. They are bringing in a whole new range of talent who can turn the data into a valuable agency asset. An asset that can undergird creative intuition. These are people like mathematicians and statisticians. Folks who can bridge the gap between left-brain marketing and right-brain creativity.

Everything in Perspective

Data about consumers and their past beliefs and behaviors is the foundation. A vital foundation. So are carefully constructed forecasts. But they are not an end in themselves. They are only the beginning. We cannot quit there and go home for the day.

Intuition applied courageously on top of that data is where marketing breakthroughs come from.

And the world needs more marketing breakthroughs.

Trust Your Gut

So study the data. Understand it. Embrace it. Learn from it. Internalize it. But don’t stop there. There is a time to set the spreadsheets aside. And to stop looking in the rear view mirror.

That’s the time to listen to what your intuition is telling you. And trust it.

Even if it tells you the market needs something other than faster horses.


  Facts are a view of the world through the rear view mirror  
Intuition is the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning
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